Dr John Simmonds urges local authorities and social workers to respond to consultation on family court crisis
There is now less than a week until the consultation on children cases in the family court closes, yet the response rate from local authorities and social workers so far has been low.
It is a matter of urgency that the sector submits its views on the recommendations to ensure any change is evidence- and experience-led.
The consultation and interim report have been developed in response to serious questions raised by former president of the Family Division, Sir James Munby, about a family court system on the verge of collapse.
Family court consultation: key recommendations
The interim report on achieving best practice in the child protection and family justice systems has been prepared by a working group chaired by Mr Justice Keehan and including several other judges and legal practitioners, senior managers from local authority children’s services and Cafcass, government representatives and others. It makes 73 core and longer-term recommendations, including:
- Shifting culture to encourage greater mutual respect of all parties involved in proceedings
- Renewing focus on pre-proceedings work and managing risk
- Reconsidering the role of Cafcass pre-proceedings
- Making special guardianship assessments and support plans more robust, and providing better training for special guardians
- Considering pre-birth support for families
- Reviewing how the family justice system is funded.
A separate report covering private law is also being consulted on, which includes recommendations around improving out-of-court family resolution services, forming local alliances of services to provide integrated support for families experiencing separation, and moving cases through the court system more effectively.
There are a number of significant factors:
- cuts to the system and the closure of courts
- the increasing number of cases
- the complexity of the cases
- and the rise in parents having to represent themselves because of the severe restrictions in the availability of legal aid.
All these issues have had a profound impact on local authority children’s services.
Resolving the primary issues outside the court arena when it comes to the safety, welfare and future of children could not be more important. Care proceedings clearly are intended to be ‘problem solving’, but the escalation of the issues to court creates a particularly challenging set of circumstances – truth and lies, right and wrong, guilty or not guilty.
The forces at work seriously heighten an emotionally charged atmosphere that does little to enable proactive engagement that focuses on meaningful ‘problem solving’. At the end of this process there must be a resolution to the primary question of what is in the child’s best interests now and into the future, but a lot will have been lost as a part of this process.
These issues are addressed in the interim report and run through some of the recommendations in the consultation document. There is an urgent need for the sector to express its views through responding to the consultation before this major opportunity expires at the end of the month.
Dr. John Simmonds OBE
CoramBAAF Director of Policy, Research and Development